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Our Key Concepts

The 4 Pillars of Donor Relations

Our signature framework to organize and prioritize your donor relations efforts.

The 4 Pillars of the Donor Experience

Advanced concepts in fundraising and donor relations that elevate the donor experience.

Diagram demonstrating structure of the 4 Pillars of donor relations

The 4 Pillars of Donor Relations

The goal of donor relations is to retain current donors and keep them engaged with our organizations. If we're successful, we gain lifetime supporters who donate to our mission time and time again. 

Donor relations is an umbrella-like term that encompasses four main functions, or pillars of the philosophical basis for donor relations.  In the past the terms stewardship and donor relations were used synonymously. Many offices of donor relations still have the term stewardship attached to their titles but the vestiges of the past are not quick to change in academia. The major difference is that stewardship is tied to the gift the donor gives; one cannot “steward” a donor, only their giving. But an organization can engage and relate to donors, with stewardship being one part of the overall donor relations strategy, 

The four pillars of donor relations serve as a guidepost for effective donor relations activities, and the first two pillars of acknowledgment and stewardship are not optional but instead foundational. Building a donor relations program that is effective, powerful and strategic relies on a group of professionals dedicated to a single mission of donor retention and sustained if not increased giving.

These pillars are the baseline but are certainly not the only activities that an office can perform to enhance relationships with donors. The first step to success in donor relations should always be an audit or assessment of the existing programs in place, comparing those activities with documented best practices.

Donor Relations

The first pillar of the architecture of donor relations sets the standard for the future of the relationship between the donor and the organization. Acknowledgment encompasses some if not all of the following responsibilities: receipts, acknowledgments, gift agreements, and leadership appreciation processes. At some organizations, donor relations has no responsibility for receipts and gift agreements because these are required by tax law, GAAP, or both. However, at minimum, leadership acknowledgments or organization-wide thank you letters are always included.


The primary purpose of donor relations stems from the need to inform donors of the usage and investment of their philanthropic giving. This is pure stewardship. Stewardship pertains to the gift that the donor has entrusted to the organization. Whether it be a gift to a restricted or capital fund, or unrestricted monies, the donor expects accountability and transparency from the organization. Thus, stewardship is not only the right thing to do, but is inextricable from the philanthropic process.


In the past, donor recognition meant specific things to organizations, honor rolls of donors in an annual report or print piece, donor walls erected on campuses, plaques filled with brass, giving clubs, giving societies and press releases touting large donations. The times have changed. Donor recognition is the fastest changing pillar in the donor relations profession. Donors want recognition both publicly and privately in the way donors want to be recognized. Innovative programs that are devising creative ways to meet this demand are successful in their market.


Often donors are asked what they want from an organization and the following three donor desires are repeatedly reported: access, information and experiences. Access is defined as insider direct connection to the leadership, the beneficiaries of their philanthropy and others within an organization. Information means that donors want insider knowledge before they read about it in the news; they want to be treated as a valued partner. Experiences are things that money cannot buy; a tour of a facility, a release of an animal back to the ocean, working in the fish kitchen, or a chance to participate in something that otherwise would not be attainable without their relationship with the organization.


The 4 Pillars of the Donor Experience

Diagram of DRG's 4 pillars of the donor experience: knowing, strategy, culture, and emotion.

The 4 Pillars of Donor Relations—acknowledgment, stewardship, recognition, and engagement—create the foundation for our work in donor relations. But, what about the 4 Pillars of the Donor Experience (DX)? This new framework—introduced in Lynne's most recent book—examines the advanced strategies and tactics that create extraordinary relationships with our donors. The 4 Pillars of the DX transcend beyond donor relations teams to include concepts and strategies for all fundraisers that will help you improve donor retention and ultimately raise more money for your organization.


Knowledge lays the foundation for all our actions with donors. Far too often, we make dangerous assumptions that affect the donor experience. Getting to know your donors is essential. Look beyond the basic points of information and dig into a donor’s behavior and communication preferences. Both passive and active intelligence are critical to consider as we build relationships with donors.


What information are you gathering through surveys, questions, and other intelligence? Intentional feedback helps you make your case for additional human and financial resources, new programs or initiatives, and provides you with new content and activity to test.

In addition, consider how you can use this information to enhance the donor experience for all donors, regardless of level. Curiosity and tenacity are encouraged in this space. Being intentional is a mindset, a new way of operating and data drives everything we do. It’s your responsibility to gather as much data as possible to help build a strategic case for your donors and their experience. Dig in and get to know more because then you can provide a level of personalization that is deeply meaningful.


Before we can successfully do our work, we need to know why we are doing it. Strategy should lead every action and decision you make in donor relations. Without strategy, we are just a well-organized list of tasks. Work diligently on the WHY behind your work as well as the "what we hope to achieve in our results."

We must think through every event, communication, acknowledgment, and report to determine how it will move or engage our donors. We need to know our baseline numbers (number of new donors, number of total donors, retention percentage, etc.) and then make it our goal to improve our efforts. Then, we need to share this information with leadership—after all, data should drive all decisions. Far too often, our work is reactive and loses its true meaning. When we strategize and are proactive on behalf of the donor, our work carries far more impact.


Culture focuses on empowerment, excellence, and gratitude to help define your organization’s interactions with donors. An expectation of excellence is a behavior and application of a set of standards. Not settling for good enough while balancing perfectionist tendencies is essential. Excellence takes determination and commitment — it needs to become a habit. Empowerment is hard to define, but when it is not present in an organization, it is glaringly obvious. Empowered professionals are more engaged, work harder, and produce better work.

Keep in mind that it takes anywhere from 18 to 36 months to change a culture, and, for many, it can take even longer than that. However, celebrating generosity using gratitude becomes habitual and ingrained in our character. To transform the donor experience, we should begin with gratitude. How we talk about our donors can change how we see and perceive their generosity.


In fundraising, lead with your heart and your donors will do the same. The importance of emotion in our profession cannot be overstated. When we allow people to connect deeply to our organizations, we become a cause they care about. When we tell people how wonderful we are, they don’t believe we need their help. The organization itself isn’t the solution. The generous souls that support it are. We need to inspire them as individuals—hierarchy and bureaucracy aren’t inspirational. If you want to build a funnel into future giving, enhance the donor experience by putting emotion at the center of reaching them, engaging them, and communicating with them.

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